Only once has Michigan State sophomore goalie
Jeff Lerg really gotten upset about being shortchanged because
of his height.
It was the summer of 2005, and the 5-foot-6
water bug was coming off a brilliant season with the Omaha
Lancers of the United States Hockey League. He was named
the USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year. Not just Goalie
of the Year. Player of the Year.
Jeff Lerg ranks fourth in the CCHA in overall goals-against
average (2.41) and save percentage (.915).
The U.S. world junior team’s tryout
camp was coming up, and Lerg was told ... nothing. USA Hockey,
the organization that declared him the best junior player
in the land, didn’t even invite him to try out for
the national junior team.
“That made me the most mad,” Lerg
said. “I felt they weren’t giving me enough
credit. I thought I would be able to go to camp to try to
prove myself, but they took three other goalies, and I didn’t
even get invited.”
That moment symbolizes what Lerg has overcome
to evolve into the elite college goalie that he is. In addition
to being too short for NHL clubs to dream of drafting, Lerg
has asthma so severe that he uses a breathing machine every
But the Livonia, Mich., native has made it
work. As a freshman last season, Lerg finished third nationally
in goal-against average at 1.96 and seventh in save percentage
at .928 – and he led a second-half resurgence that
landed MSU a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This season,
he is fourth in the CCHA in both GAA (2.41) and save percentage
(.915) as the Spartans load up for another March run.
“I’ve always dealt with being
told I’m too short,” he said. “When I
was in midgets, they said I was too small to play at the
junior level, then they said I was too small to play at
the college level, so hopefully if I continue to do well,
I can get to the pro level and prove myself there.
“I feel like I have to prove myself
every night. There are goalies that seem to get more credit
just because of their size. I remember watching guys I knew
go into the draft, and I could believe these guys were getting
Without having scouts drooling over him, Lerg
says he takes pride in his statistics. He has started every
game this season, and he knows his numbers would be even
better if not for a fluky autumn run when pucks were whizzing
past him off of other players’ skates, shin pads and
“It was unbelievable,” Lerg said.
“I was kind of rattled, I just couldn’t believe
what was happening.”
But Lerg, like the Spartans, got it straightened
out after a 7-7-1 start. As has been the norm under coach
Rick Comley, the Spartans have kicked it up a notch since
Christmas. Lerg has been stellar, including a 54-save performance
in Saturday’s 3-3 tie with Michigan, and his cousin,
junior forward Bryan Lerg, has been just as hot, hitting
the 20-goal mark last weekend.
After a 2-1 loss at Ferris State on Tuesday night ended
MSU’s nine-game unbeaten streak, a home-and-home against
suddenly formidable Western Michigan looms this weekend.
“It’s funny, because at the beginning
of the year, you might look at our schedule and think, ‘All
right, we close with Ferris, Western and Bowling Green,’”
Lerg said. “But now all three of those teams are playing
the best hockey of their season, so we have to play well
and get some wins to help us on the national scene.”
AND HEARD IN THE CCHA
The Western front: From our
standpoint, only two CCHA teams have exceeded preseason
expectations with any notable degree. One is your soon-to-be
conference champion, Notre Dame. The other isn’t as
obvious: Western Michigan.
The Broncos, who were picked to finish in
or near the basement of the league and haven’t played
meaningful (to them, at least) February games in a few years,
are in seventh place with two weekends to go. The road to
clinching home ice isn’t easy – after this weekend’s
home-and-home against MSU, they close at Lake Superior State
– but they also have a four-point cushion over ninth-place
Alaska and Northern Michigan, meaning a playoff series at
rowdy Lawson Arena is looking likely.
A major reason for the Broncos’ busting
out has been a pair of freshmen, goalie Riley Gill and forward
Mark Letestu. Gill has solidified the crease with a 3.04
GAA and a .907 save percentage that make incumbent junior
Daniel Bellissimo’s 4.01 and .866 look out of place
in Kalamazoo, for a change. (To Bellissimo’s credit,
he had a pretty good January.) WMU coach Jim Culhane wouldn’t
tip his hand as to how he’s going to handle his goalies
down the stretch, but logic dictates that Gill will be the
guy until he falters.
Offensively, Letestu has a team-high 38 points
(18g, 20a), which tie him for the national rookie scoring
lead with St. Cloud State’s Andreas Nodl. An interesting
side note about the 22-year-old Elk Point, Alberta, product:
He’s actually almost a year older than outgoing senior
and second-leading WMU scorer Paul Szczechura.
Overall, Culhane praises his team for the
coach-speak staples of focusing on games one at a time,
getting better each week in practice and battling hard all
“Right now, we’re just refining
the things we want to get better at,” he continued.
“I’d like to see us get the puck to the net
a little more. Our shooting percentage is one of the tops
in the league, but I’d like to see more shots. And
we’re always working on the execution of our special
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BAG
Great Weekend Getaway
at Lake Superior State (Fri.); Michigan vs. Lake Superior
The Wolverines need these wins to pad their NCAA tournament
resume. The Lakers need them to lock up home ice in
the first round of the league tournament (they’re
in eighth place, the final home-ice slot). Friday’s
game will be a “White Out” at Taffy Abel
Arena. Sunday’s contest marks the end of LSSU’s
12-year agreement to play an annual regular-season
game at Joe Louis Arena, signed when Red Wings owner
Mike Ilitch contributed to the Norris Center renovation
in Sault Ste. Marie.
While you’re there: It’s
about five hours from the Soo to Motown, so you’d
might as well break it up and swing by East Lansing
for Saturday night’s Western Michigan at Michigan
it looked like Ferris State and Bowling Green
could fold up the tents of their seasons, they pulled
out huge victories. BG upset Michigan on Friday, and
Ferris eked past Michigan State on Tuesday. It’s
nice to see such resilience from those clubs. And
as a reward, they get each other for a pair this weekend
in Big Rapids.
love during Valentine’s week. We’ve got
• Notre Dame has a magic number of three
points over Michigan and one over Michigan State to claim
the CCHA regular-season championship, meaning there’s
a good chance the Irish will clinch it this weekend in Alaska.
Looking at the rest of the playoff race, ND, U-M, MSU and
Miami are locks for first-round playoff byes. Nebraska-Omaha,
Ohio State, WMU and Lake Superior State are likely to host
first-round series, so Northern Michigan, Alaska, Ferris
State and Bowling Green would hit the road.
• Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the
INCH Power Rankings, but Michigan senior T.J. Hensick said
in a CSTV.com chat this week that Minnesota is the best
team the Wolverines have played this season.
• Injury report: Ohio State senior forward
Domenic Maiani (8-12-20) tore an ACL on Friday and is out
for the season. ... Lake Superior State forward Dan Eves
(5-6-11) has a sprained ankle and is questionable for the
Michigan series. With him out of the lineup last Saturday
at Miami, the Lakers skated with just 17 players. ... Notre
Dame forward Christian Hanson (5-2-7) is expected to return
this weekend after missing more than a month with mononucleosis.
• Miami finishes off the CCHA’s
nonconference schedule (until the national tournament) with
a home-and-home set against red-hot Robert Morris this week.
Thursday’s game was in Oxford (a 7-3 RedHawk win);
Saturday’s is in Moon Township, Pa.
• If you’re wondering, like we
were, why the RedHawks held their Senior Night last weekend
instead of at Thursday’s game against RMU, it’s
because it was easier to have players’ parents come
in on a weekend instead of a weekday.
• Fun with numbers: Notre Dame’s
24 wins are the program’s second-most ever, trailing
only the 27 amassed as a Division I independent in 1987-88.
... Nebraska-Omaha notched its school-record eighth tie
of the season last weekend. ... Michigan coach Red Berenson
is 40-40-4 against this weekend’s opponent, Lake Superior
State. ... When Bowling Green’s Tomas Petruska scored
the winning goal with 35 seconds remaining against Michigan
on Friday, it marked the Wolverines’ first loss in
the final minute of regulation since Michigan State’s
Bryan Adams scored with 52 seconds left for a 5-4 win on
Nov. 2, 1996.
• Nebraska-Omaha’s home series
against Ohio State gets bumped to the Bullpen this weekend
by the state high school wrestling tournament at the Qwest
• Michigan freshman Chris Summers has
three goals in two-and-a-half games as a forward. In 29-and-a-half
prior games as a defenseman, he had none. We have a pretty
good idea where he’ll be playing this weekend, but
before you assume the switch is permanent, remember that
the Coyotes drafted him in the first round as a blue-liner.
• Michigan great Wally Gacek (1946-49)
was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Honor
earlier this month. He scored 151 points in his career and
led U-M to its first national championship in 1948.
A variety of sources were utilized in
the compilation of this report. James Jahnke can be reached